Judging a relationship by the fruit it bears instead of the years it lasts.
When a friend wanted to introduce me to a guy she knew, I said, “Sure, but I’m not looking for anything serious.” I was just shy of my 27th birthday and finally felt comfortable being single. She told me he’d said the same thing. Nevertheless, three years later, I found myself browsing wedding dresses online and sending David the links.
We both fell harder than we meant to. David later told me he started falling for me when I carried my 60-pound dog over a section of sidewalk covered in glass. One of the things I loved early on was his dedication to his job. Lying in bed before his birthday—the first I’d celebrated with him—he told me he’d rather his parents donate to Rhino’s, the youth center where he worked, than give him cash. This was coming from a guy on a social worker’s salary who couldn’t afford to fix the tooth he’d broken attempting to skateboard with some of Rhino’s kids. That night his altruism stole my heart.
Our relationship acted as a garden in which new parts of us blossomed—career changes, creative projects, fitness goals. We kept planting seeds until we saw what shoots would take off. We volunteered together for a music-related nonprofit. He switched from playing in two bands to regularly performing standup comedy. I trained to teach aerobics. This kind of support, however, was a double-edged sword. The things that made us proud of each other also meant we led very separate lives.
A couple of years into the relationship, we both realized what we wanted to do with our lives. I became more serious about writing and started a blog. David read every post and encouraged me when I decided to get an MFA. In turn he got serious about standup. I gave him honest feedback about what I thought was funny and made sure to tell him how proud I was after his sets.
But even as we encouraged each other, we grew apart. While I spent night after night at a coffee shop writing my grad school samples, David’s career was building momentum as he performed nightly. We stopped having date nights and saw less and less of each other as he did more shows out of town, while I juggled my full-time job and and full-time dream.
But I didn’t want to let go, thus the wedding dresses. The links prompted serious discussions, and it took me a long time to admit that David was right when he said I didn’t know what I really wanted long-term. Did I want to marry him? He saw through my confidence to the undercurrent of doubt about marrying a guy who traveled all the time and—our other major difference—who didn’t share my spiritual practices.
We ended up staying together but holding off on marriage, and a few months after our fifth anniversary, we called it quits. For weeks afterwards, every time I was alone in the car or in the bathroom, I’d uncontrollably weep. We didn’t stop loving each other, we just finally accepted our relationship wasn’t working.
That was two years ago. David recently told me he believes breaking up allowed us to have the kind of relationship that was best for us. We still love and support each other, we’re just no longer a couple. And even though we ultimately parted, I don’t regret our years together. Sometimes relationships simply have an expiration date, and it’s nobody’s fault.
Our culture is fixated on the longevity of a relationship as the primary evidence of its success. Breaking up is often seen as a failure. In fact, there’s still a strong stigma attached to getting a divorce. And in my case, since we didn’t get married, he will be forever known as my ex-boyfriend, which to me makes the relationship sound less significant than it actually was.
But I have plenty of reasons to view our relationship as a success:
What we accomplished when we were together. I’m now in my last year of my MFA program, and David is performing stand-up full time. What better evidence for our relationship than the careers we encouraged each other to start?
My ongoing relationship with his daughter. When I met Miranda, she was 11. She’s in college now, and I had the blessing of watching her grow into an amazing woman. We make a point to spend time together each summer.
Our friendship. He calls me when he needs perspective about his relationship with his new girlfriend, Susan. And I call him when I want to talk to someone I trust, someone who loves and accepts me completely.
How we made each other into better partners. David has told me that our relationship made him a better boyfriend to Susan. They seem better suited for each other, and even though sometimes I’m envious of this, in the long run, I’m happy for them. And in Susan, I’ve found a new friend.
The success of any one relationship won’t look like anyone else’s. For instance, sometimes it’s not healthy to keep in touch. I had several toxic relationships before David that took me years to work through, and even though they made me stronger, more confident, and clearer about what I wouldn’t put up with, I don’t consider them “successful.” Instead, my definition of success has more to do with gratitude for the investment. Someone invested in me, and I invested in them. Practicing gratitude for things that are impermanent allows me to make peace with the loss of a partnership, and accept the form the relationship takes in the present. David’s role in my life has changed. But the investments we made, like the seeds we planted in our garden, are still alive and growing.
Jera Brown writes about the intersection of faith and sexuality on her blog scarletchurch.com.